Latest from Japan -- robots making robots

When workers at the Fujitsu Fanuc factory knock off at 5 p.m., production continues regardless. For 16 hours of every working day, in fact, the factory is run entirely by robots --turning out other robots.

About 100 humans come in for the remaining eight hours, mainly to make sure everything is running smoothly.

As a result, Fujitsu Fanuc is close to realizing the industrialist's dream: a factory without any workers.

The company, an offshoot of a computer manufacturer, has become the world leader in making the brains for automated (numerically controlled) machine tools , as well as industrial robots.

A Fanuc brochure declares it is the ambition of its engineers to "achieve unmanned factories the world over."

That came a step closer last November when the company opened a new $38 million plant near Mt. Fuji to take robots a giant step beyond the realms of science fiction.

Currently, the factory employs 100 workers who oversee production of 100 robots a month as well as the factory's high output of machine tools.

This is reckoned to be only one-fifth the number of workers required in a conventional plant to do the same job.

By 1986, says a Fujitsu Fanuc executive, the plant should be producing nearly four times the number of robots and machine tools with only 200 workers -- about one-fifteenth the work force of an equivalent nonautomated factory.

The robots being used bare little resemblance to the bucket-of-bolts R2D2 of "Star Wars" fame. But Hitachi, the electronics firm, has just mobilized 500 scientists and engineers to produce a new generation of robots that will be able to see, feel, and walk up and down on the factory floor supervising other robots on automatic assembly lines.

Japan is pioneering this development. According to the Japan Robot Association, there are at least 60,000 sophisticated "mechanical men" in operation in this country now turning out high-quality cars, cheap electronic equipment, new robots, and other industrial goods.

At a Nissan (Datsun) factory near Tokyo, for example, sophisticated machines bobbing and weaving like demented chickens have now taken over most of the dirty and dangerous jobs.

They are welding doors to bodies, painting and performing other chores around the clock faster, cheaper, and far more efficiently than humans.

By comparison, American industrial plants are said to possess only 3,000 sophisticated robots. West Germany has about 850, and Britain currently only just over 100.

Embattled American industries facing a growing Japanese challenge should be warned that, through the use of more and more robots and automated machine tools , this country expects to increase its already high rate of efficiency by another 70 percent during the current decade.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the revolutionary Fujitsu Fanuc factory.

Lined up around the plant are dozens of automated cells, each consisting of a numerically controlled machine and a computerized robot.

Copper wires are embedded in the factory floor to guide unmanned carts moving between an automated warehouse and various cells on the assembly line.

Raw material is automatically loaded onto the carts and carried to the appropriate cell. There it is shaped and finished by the computer and machine tool, returned to the unmanned cart, and carried on to the next stage in production.

Workers return to the factory next morning to complete the final assembly of the new generation of robots, although company president Seiuemon Inaba hopes to create a new robot by 1985 that will take over this task as well.

Mr. Inaba says the first prototype of this next generation of robots should be available within a year, and will be used to assemble company-designed electrical motors. Only after several years of in-house testing will it be available for worldwide sales.

As testimony to Fujitsu Fanuc's role in pushing automation, while company sales soared almost 250 percent between 1976 to 1979, its work force has risen only 10 percent to the current level of 773.

Yet while boasting some of the world's most highly automated industrial plants, Japan still has a negligible unemployment rate of about 2 percent.

Unlike those of other countries, Japanese trade unions have not resisted the introduction of robots and new technology. In fact, the development has been welcomed, eliminating many of the most dangerous and monotonous factory jobs.

Hitachi, for example, says that within five years "we expect blue collar workers to disappear entirely from the assembly line. Factories will be manned only by clerical staff and a few maintenance technicians."

The staff thus freed from assembly chores will be trained for other jobs, particularly on the sales side, as business expands.

Says a Fujitsu Fanuc spokesman: "Just as the industrial revolution in 18 th-century England freed [or perhaps pushed] people from the land to work in industry, our inventions will push people further into the tertiary sector of health, education, a nd entertainment, etc., to create a better life for all.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Latest from Japan -- robots making robots
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today